As the community of SwimMastery coaches continues to expand rapidly we thought it would be a good idea to profile some of the coaches in more depth, exploring their background, philosophy and inspirations. First up we spoke to Claire Sutton who runs her business, Swimfinity, from an idyllic village less than half an hour from Leeds and around seven miles from Selby in West Yorkshire.
Claire kindly took time out to talk to us from her preparations for her forthcoming freestyle workshop at The Forum Centre in Leeds on October 31st which she will be running jointly with SwimMastery co-founder Tracey Baumann
“When did you start coaching?”
I began in 2018 when I decided that I needed a career change. I had re-discovered my love for swimming a few years earlier and it seemed to be a very logical step to take this to the next level
“Do you remember learning to swim?”
I remember winning a gold medal at Butlins holiday camp aged 6, up against all 6-9 year-olds in an outdoor unheated pool. My only memory of actually learning to swim is of holding the side, refusing to move! I do remember following a pole that the teacher was holding to get my 10m badge.
“What were your early experiences like?”
Learning to swim was an adventure and swimming for the City of Leeds was really cool. Travelling to Ireland, Germany and all over the UK to swim was totally inspiring. We swam in Stuttgart and Dublin, both times staying with exchange families. Those memories are still very vivid 40 years on!
“What gives you the most satisfaction when coaching?”
I love video analysis, 30minute lessons showing the progress people make is really motivating. Taking a splashy, panicky front crawl swimmer to a calm relaxed smooth swimmer is the favourite part for me.
“What are the most challenging aspects of coaching?”
Access to open water is hard where I live, there is loads around Yorkshire but getting to coach in those venues can be tricky. Fortunately, I have a number of locations I can use including the River Wharfe near Boston Spa, Leeds Docks and the east coast sea.
“How has your coaching style changed over the years?”
I’ve been in teaching for over 20 years and always knew I wanted to teach from being as young as 7. Coaching is so much more effective and giving the swimmer, child or adult, the tools to take away and improve by themselves is the biggest change.
“Where is the best place you have ever swum?”
I guess the English Channel was cool but not the cleanest water so maybe the Caribbean for the fact that the water was so clear.
“Where would you like to swim that you have yet to visit?”
Iceland is a must for me, where the tectonic plates meet and you can swim over them. It’s on my bucket list to do before I’m 50!
“Who do you most admire in the swimming world and why?”
You know, my daughter was asked this question about which footballer she admired most and she said, she thinks a lot of people inspire her but she wouldn’t want to be like them. I think this is the same for me; Olympians, World Record holders, ocean swimmers, all are inspiring but actually ultimately I swim for me and my health and wellbeing, not to be like anyone or to copy anyone.
“How do you feel when you swim?”
Now that depends on the water, temperature, location and company but I can say, a swim never makes me feel bad!
“Who gave you the best advice/information about swimming and what was it?”
That has to be my swim buddy Andrea Hall. Recently we’ve decided to swim for peace, not pace and for this reason, every swim is relaxing, not pressured and in our own time.
“What do you aim to provide for your students?”
Whatever their goal is! That could be a Channel swim, a 5m swim or just putting their face in the water. Every student is different. That’s what makes the job so interesting.
“Why did you choose to use the SwimMastery method of teaching and coaching?”
That’s easy, Tracey Baumann and Mat Hudson were both respected coaches in the world of swimming already. Tracey trained me originally so to follow her and Mat and be able to learn more from them is crucial for both my development in swimming and for my students to know that I personally have the best coaches working with me.
“What are your ambitions for the future both as a swimmer and also as a coach?”
A Channel solo has to be on my long term swimming list but in 2022 it’s Lake Windermere one way. As for coaching, I am planning on installing a cold water plunge pool at the studio soon. I also have the first SwimMastery workshop to deliver on 31st October. After that, I would like to start swim camps around the world, when the world opens up again!
“Thank you, Claire and good luck with the workshop!”
There are still a few places available on the workshop so, if you hurry, you may still be able to bag a place. Please contact Claire for details.
Area covered: Yorkshire
Facilities at the studio: Endless Pool, private change area, refreshments, Video Analysis
Open water facilities nearby: Leeds Dock, East Coast Sea, River Wharfe, Boston Spa.
One to one or small group teaching available for: Kids, Adults, Nervous / novice swimmers, Triathletes Channel swimmers, Cold water swimmers, Open water swimmers.
Other teaching: Workshops, Camps – soon hopefully!
Claire can be contacted at:
I was chatting recently to some of my fellow coaches and the subject of exactly why we swim came up. As the summer draws to a close and temperatures start to drift downwards I was curious to know what motivated them, particularly when it came to open water swimming. Was it the feeling of being at one with nature?; the calm meditative nature of the stroke?: the feeling of freedom and weightlessness from being supported by the water? I was predicting a range of answers along these lines.
In fact, the answer was unanimous and unequivocal. There was no debate with regard to the best bit about swimming:
It’s the cake.
Specifically ginger cake apparently.
Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash
Now I am aware that not all open water swimmers will agree with this, some might see it as quite a controversial view. Particularly those who favour a Battenburg. However, there can be little doubt that, whatever the exact type, there is very little that can beat a nice thick slice of cake after a swim. Preferably accompanied by a hot chocolate or at the very least a strongly brewed cup of tea.
But is any of this relevant? And if so, how? Are Swim Mastery swimmers not here to exercise, to practice and improve, to train and travel on the road to higher learning? Well, yes, clearly. That’s definitely part of it. A pretty large part of it. And indeed if you want to make that your sole experience then good luck to you.
However, there is a whole other side to things to consider. SwimMastery is all about making connections. Connections in the body when we’re in the water to ensure that we are moving as one coordinated unit. But connections are equally important out of the water. Social connections, bringing people together who have a shared love of the sport. People who would probably never meet any other way.
Just in my own relatively small circle of swimming friends I have met government advisors and grannies, prison officers and stay at home Mums, acrobats and architects. Plus people I consider that I know quite well yet have absolutely no idea what they do for a living. Because swimming, like many sports, is a complete leveller. It doesn’t matter what folks do away from the water. All that matters is the enjoyment which is had within it. And success in business is no guarantee of success in the water (but no barrier to it either obviously). Normal hierarchies can be completely overturned. Not that it really matters; in my experience most swimmers focus on the challenges presented by the water and are less focused on the performance of their colleagues. Some competitve element may creep into affairs from time to time but rarely is this representative of serious rivalry.
I observed a coach the other day who was drilling a group of youngsters in the pool. I was horrified. If he felt they hadn’t swum a length well enough the whole lane had to get out and do press-ups or crawl on all fours back to the other end It was meant to be fun I’m sure but looked simply degrading and humiliating. None of the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. I had no idea why they didn’t push him in. Needless to say, he was not a SwimMastery coach. Perhaps he was having success in creating a few swimmers capable of winning a race in a school gala. However, I am certain that he was completely failing to nurture a life-long love of swimming in any of his pupils which would have been a preferable outcome by far and may well have been a more successful strategy in producing successful race swimmers to boot.
Photo by Angelo Pantazis on-Unsplash
Because if you aren’t enjoying your swimming, if everything becomes a grim-faced slog, then it’s unlikely that you will build those all-important bonds which unite both formal and informal groups. It’s probably no coincidence that the SwimMastery swim groups I see tend to have a lot of fun and laughter together.
One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others. Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets. With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible. Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away. It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game. If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.
However, it is important to recognise the limitations too. It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives. The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite. It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication. Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak. Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.
But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own. There are, however, other factors to remember. Swimming is a “whole body” sport. Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result. Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water. Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns. Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.
Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash
Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training. Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race. This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes. If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change. The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.
And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers. A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic.
There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level. These are not normal people! That is not intended in a derogatory way. It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals. In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone. Some were much taller. Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot. For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone. In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties. However, an athletic build is often just the starting point. To take Michael Phelps as an example. It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick. He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility. He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height. His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.
Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.
In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming. There is much to be learned from this approach. However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming. Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.
I was asked recently how we would distinguish SwimMastery from, for example, a program such as ‘X’ led by a famous Olympic swimmer.
My response went something like this…
That’s a good question regarding comparison between SwimMastery and something like Program X. With some familiarity, my colleague noted that ‘Ms. X has her name and her success to draw attention. She has some great ideas and she’s a real people person. Lovely personality. And a great swimmer, of course.’ But while that is appealing on one side and there are no doubt good things to learn from one like her, there is an argument to be made about the difference between the approach elites took to swimming the way they did and an approach that works for ordinary people, particular adult-onset swimmers, many with sub-optimal conditions for which we must have a great deal more caution and consideration.
Some elites end up making great coaches (and Ms. X seems to be one of them). Though not dismissive of their practices, we have reason to think critically about the technique and the training methodology used and promoted by former elites because the injury rate is horribly high among swimmers in this realm (as reported in various swim organization stats and medical journals) and this rate appears to be institutionally accepted by as normal, just part of the sport. We do not accept those rates, and they certainly represent and inappropriate level of risk for the ordinary people we work with. The values/priorities of elites are substantially different than citizen swimmers and in the commercialized adult coaching realm there is confusion between these realms and the values and needs of the people in them.
No doubt, some elites-turned-coach can learn the context and more appropriate approaches to performance for ordinary people, but those of us who have worked through that pathway personally understand it intimately. Just as elites know what its like to take their relatively robust teenage body and put it through the grueling process to become an elite, we know what it is like to take an aged or ordinary body and put it through a careful process to perform better than ever within its boundaries. Many of our coaches come from the world of ordinary people learning to do (relatively) extraordinary things, while elite swimmers have grown up in a different world. For us a chief value is safety for the swimmer’s body and mind and their longevity in the activity – so all technique ideas must be screened through that chief value. This means several traditional/conventional swimming ideas are rejected because they are clearly connected to injury despite their alleged contribution to elite performance. Not all that makes you faster will also keep your body safe. Therefore modeling one’s swimming after an elite needs to be approached with great caution. Before getting excited and making one’s body vulnerable, we would want to take a lot more justification for the technique and training ideas of the program than just the name of the former elite swimmer leading it.
In SwimMastery, we understand that every detail of the stroke movement pattern matters. Every position, every motion, every restraint of motion has a purpose and we justify it to you in terms of physics and physiology. Consider how many other sports, martial and movement arts maintain exacting standards in their movement patterns, tolerating no deviation for safety and efficacy sake. With respect to the statistical range of variety in human body shapes and dimensions, for each stroke style there is an optimal corridor to fit motion within; staying within that corridor lowers risk while deviating increases it. We will always be guiding the swimmer into that corridor because it is the proper foundation for anyone who wants to swim for a lifetime.